Capernaum


The love of a child is a wonderful thing.

(2018) Drama (Sony ClassicsZain Al Raffea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Yousef, Cedra Izzam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Elias Khoury, Mohammad Al Abdallah, Faten Asmar, Lama Begaum, Mohammad Chabouri, Samira Chalhoub, Nour El Husseini, Mohammad Hammoud, Farah Hasno, Tamer Ibrahim, Nadine Labaki. Directed by Nadine Labaki

 

Some movies are meant to be light entertainment. Others are meant to be a punch to the gut. This film is of the latter persuasion.

This Lebanese film – winner of the Jury Award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival where it debuted, and also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Oscars – introduces us to Zain (Al Raffea), a young refugee boy living in Beirut with his parents and many siblings. He is closest to 11-year-old Sahar (Izzam) who periodically joins him on the streets, trying to raise money by selling cups of tomato juice. When his hapless parents – bleary-eyed father (Yousef) and overwhelmed mother (Al Haddad) – sell Sahar to a pedophilic shop owner (El Husseini) for a bunch of chickens, he realizes that he cannot live in that house anymore and runs away.

On the streets he finds Rahil (Shiferaw), an undocumented refugee from Ethiopia with a cute little toddler son Yonas (Boluwatife) who gives Zain shelter and food. In return, Zain watches little Yonas while Rahil goes to work, trying to earn enough to buy forged work permits from Aspro (Chouchnieh) who would be willing to exchange the forged papers in exchange for her son, which she absolutely refuses to do. When Rahil doesn’t show up back home from work one night, Zain is forced to try and get food and money any way that he can. Then, he receives word of a tragedy that will change the trajectory of his life and put him in jail, where he decides to sue his parents for having given him life.

The movie alternates between courtroom drama and social realist drama, with the latter taking the bulk of the film and with good reason for it is much more fascinating than the legal drama. Labaki tells the story mostly in flashbacks from the courtroom proceedings, which while packing some emotional punch do not compare to the almost matter-of-fact way that Labaki displays everyday horrors that confront the impoverished in Lebanon.

As with her other films (this is her third feature), Labaki casts mostly non-professionals in roles that parallel their own lives. The actors were encouraged to react to various events as they would in real life, giving the film a raw you-are-there quality. There are no punches pulled here nor does Labaki offer apologies for the way Zain and his parents act; they are desperate people doing whatever it takes to survive, but at least Zain is able to find humanity within his heart through caring for Yonas. His parents never do.

The movie, at two hours long, is overwhelming in a lot of ways and should not be undertaken lightly. Still, if you need to understand that there are people who have it worse than you do – a lot worse – this is the film to see. It is also the film to see for the cutest toddler performance ever, which is counterbalanced by the blazing performance given by Zain who swears like a sailor throughout and although he’s 12 or 13 (his parents aren’t precisely sure and there’s no paperwork to prove that Zain even exists) he is wise well beyond his years. In any case, lovers of movies shouldn’t pass up this gem.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating mix of courtroom drama and slice of life. Realistic, raw performances throughout. Never pulls punches.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: The boy who played Zain has since been relocated with his family to Norway where he is learning to read and write.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Yonas is portrayed in the movie as a male toddler, the baby playing him is actually female.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV,  Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV,  Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Separation
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Mindfulness Movement

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Heaven Without People (Ghada’a El Eid)


Cheers!

(2017) Drama (MC Distributors) Samira Sarkis, Farah Shaer, Nadim Abou Samra, Laeticia Semaan, Hussein Hijazi, Ghassan Chemali, Wissam Boutros, Toni Habib, Jenny Gebara, Jean Paul Hage,  Mohamed Abbass, Etafar Aweke, Nancy Karam, Ivy Helou, Ziad Majdara, Maria Ziad Jabra. Directed by Lucien Bourjeily

Everyone loves a family gathering – in theory. What could be better than seeing all your loved ones in one place at the same time? Plenty, as it turns out.

Josephine (Sarkis) is the matriarch of a Lebanese Orthodox Christian family. Getting her family together is like pulling teeth; they haven’t been in the same room for a meal for more than two years. It’s Easter Sunday and she has prepared a feast for her children and their spouses (and two grandchildren, one too young to do anything but sleep). The children are in various stages of functional; Serge (Samra) seems to be the most level-headed but he has been dating his girlfriend Rita (Shaer) for three years without any sign of commitment; she is concerned that she might be pregnant which Serge is very much against.

Leila (Semaan) is a strident political firebrand who is very critical about the government for which her father (Boutros) was once employed with. Christine (Karam) is closest to Josephine but is having big problems with her teenage son Sami (Habib). Elias (Hage) is married to Noha (Gebara) and is more than a little bit of a bully; the family treats him with contempt most of the time. Josephine’s maid (Helou) tries to be in the background but she is treated with love by the family.

The conversation turns from politics to religion and tension soon begins to make things a little bit frayed at the table. Josephine then discovers that a large sum of money is missing, money that she and her husband – who despite his apparent vigor is actually in a fragile state of health – desperately need. There’s no way to know who took it other than that it is someone at the dining table. By the end of the meal all of the skeletons will come out of the closet and the things bubbling under the surface will grow into a full-on boil

I liked this movie very much. I believe the great Gene Siskel would have too; movies that are a slice of life, particularly in other cultures, were essentially his favorite kind of films. I love learning about different cultures – the foods they eat, the traditions they hold to, the rituals that a meal brings with it I also enjoy the dynamics of a family (which generally speaking are pretty much the same everywhere) particularly when there is discord. Few families love each other universally all the time. There are always squabbles.

The performances are pretty natural. I don’t know whether the performers are professional actors or amateurs; either way the dynamics in this family are very believable and none of the performers seem to be wooden or stiff; they’re all comfortable in front of the camera which can be a big deal in movies like this one.

The one thing that I had real problems with was the camera movement. Cinematographer Ahmad Al Trabolsi utilizes a hand-held camera and circles the table constantly; while it does add an air of tension to the story it also serves to be distracting and downright annoying. Some fixed camera angles would have benefitted the film and relieved the constant camera movement. I will say that both cinematographer and director did a good job despite the confined and somewhat claustrophobic set (nearly all the movie takes place inside the small apartment of Josephine and her husband). Sometimes directors and cinematographers will make a film look more like a stage play in these kinds of conditions but that didn’t happen here.

The film moves at  slow but steady pace, the tension increasing as the meal progresses and eventually the situation of the missing money is revealed to the rest of the family. The climax is handled very nicely and left me wondering how the family would survive what happened; a great film will leave you concerned for the welfare of its characters and that’s precisely what happened here.

The build-up may be a little too long for attention-challenged viewers but those with the patience to stick with the film will be richly rewarded – the final few scenes are truly amazing. Bourjeily is certainly someone to keep an eye on. If you’re heading down to Miami to catch this festival, this is one you should put on your list. Tickets can be ordered here.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a slow build to a fast boil. A lovely slice of life with a little bit of rot below the surface.
REASONS TO STAY: The handheld camera becomes quite annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourjeily, who got his MFA in film from Loyola Marymount University (my alma mater), is making his feature film debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Call Me By Your Name

Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?)


Where Do We Go Now?

The Lebanese team voguing competition is underway.

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Leyla Hakim, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf, Antoinette Noufaily, Julian Farhat, Ali Haidar, Kevin Abboud, Petra Saghbini, Mostafa Al Sakka, Sasseen Kawzally, Anjo Rihane. Directed by Nadine Labaki

 

It is sometimes mystifying why men fight and kill over religious belief. It’s not like our religions vary to so much degree that they are completely incompatible; at the end of the day, they’re more like than unalike.

A small village in an unnamed country (but thee and me can call it Lebanon, where the movie was filmed) has been cut off from the rest of the world by land mines, leaving the only way in and out a tiny road over a terrifying bridge. In some ways this has benefitted the village; the Muslims and Christians who make up equal parts of the population live in relative harmony, the mosque and church alongside each other and the priest and imam both in agreement that peace between their flocks would be beneficial to all.

That doesn’t mean they achieved it without cost; the town’s cemetery is littered with graves of men and boys taken well before their time over religious violence. The women of the town have grown tired of endless funerals and mourning their husbands, sons and fathers. They all get along famously; why can’t the men?

When Roukoz (Haidar), whose scooter trips to neighboring towns for supplies represent the only contact with the rest of the world, brings in an antenna, the town once again is blessed with television reception – albeit on a single television set. With it comes news of strife between Muslims and Christians elsewhere in the country. This sets the men to muttering amongst themselves.

Some have no time for this. Beautiful Amale (Labaki), a Christian, is having her cafe repainted by the handsome handyman Rabih (Farhat) and she dreams of a relationship with him. He also finds himself attracted to her but neither know how to breach the subject of actually dating.

However, little incidents begin to inflame the men of the town. The holy water in the Church is substituted by chicken blood. A herd of goats is let into the mosque. The women do whatever they can to defuse the situation; Takla (Moussawbaa), the mayor’s wife, fakes a miracle. Ukrainian strippers are brought in to distract the men. When that fails, the women host a party in which treats laced with hashish are served to mellow out the boys.

However, things get a great deal more serious when Roukoz, on one of his trips to town, is caught in the crossfire between Christian and Muslim militia and is killed. Nassim (Abboud), his cousin, mournfully brings back the body, unable to tell even which side shot the fatal bullet. Realizing that this incident could set off the powder keg, the women resolve to keep the incident quiet until tempers cool down. But can they be successful, or will more bodies be joining Nassim in the graveyard?

This is a story that in many ways is close to Labaki’s heart. Obviously she’s passionate about it, having co-written, starred in and directed the material. She grew up in Lebanon where, as she put it, time was equally divided between home and shelter. There were many days, she said in a studio interview, when it was too dangerous for her to go outside. She got a front row seat to religious conflict.

A significant number of the cast were locals with no acting experience and yet they perform well as an ensemble here. Labaki and Farhat by necessity take much of the attention, having a romantic attraction but even the Ukrainian actresses who plaid the strippers have a naturalistic feel to them. The people here seem comfortable in their roles; one wonders how much of it is what they are used to in their real lives.

This is definitely a bit of a fantasy, a what-if women were in charge in that region. When given the more subordinate role women play in that part of the world, it’s a legitimate question and I’m sure one that many women in that war-weary region must ask themselves as they attend another funeral, or read in the newspapers of another atrocity.

My issue with the movie is the attempt to juxtapose levity and pathos. When it’s done right, it’s seamless and natural but here it’s kind of jarring. On the one hand, there’s a fairly comic scene of the men high on hashish, but prior to that the mother of the slain Roukoz is comforted by the women of the village. It’s an extremely emotional scene whose effectiveness is cut off at the knees by the blissed-out men thereafter. The movie could have been that much more powerful had it been more successful at balancing the two elements.

The village life depicted here is endearing and comforting in its own way; even big city dwellers long for the familiarity of small town life (although not necessarily the insular attitudes which are largely absent here). While there is an element of the fantastic here (there are musical numbers here which also serve to jar the audience out of the movie a bit, although they are admittedly well-staged), it is the realism of the village life that I found stayed with me most, although I admired the subject matter a great deal. It’s not as effective as it might have been in addressing it but the movie is still one I can give a strong recommendation to without hesitating.

REASONS TO GO: Moving in places and amusing in others. Fascinating subject matter and canvas.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks focus.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality, some images of violence and thematic drug use in one scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Where Do We Go Now? is the highest grossing Arabic language film in Lebanese history and the third-highest overall.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lysistrada

VOGUE LOVERS: In the opening scene, a group of women walk in to the town cemetery. Along the way the walk evolves into a bit of a dance which looks very much like Madonna’s old Vogue thing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Eclipse